The last six months have decimated the restaurant industry. As Seattleites, we want to share the stories of chefs in the area who have made sacrifices to support the community while simultaneously changing their businesses to survive. These chefs work day and night in pursuit of their passion, and we celebrate them.
Ethan Leung never intended on becoming a chef. Instead, cooking for himself in college, and a subsequent kitchen job steered him down the culinary path. After business at Ben Paris in Seattle - where Ethan currently works - dramatically slowed, he launched his Filipino inspired pop-up Baon. We asked Ethan about his path to Baon, and launching a concept restaurant in the most difficult of times.
When and where did you learn to cook, and at what point did you realize that food was something you wanted to pursue as a career?
I started to cook when I was in college (Western Washington University) out of necessity. I would just look up recipes on how to make quick & easy meals so that I wouldn't spend too much money on eating at restaurants. My friend referred me to a Japanese restaurant named Little Tokyo and they were looking for someone to make sushi. Having no experience, the owners took me in and taught me what they knew. Around that time, "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" came out and I had to watch it to understand more about sushi. "Once you decide on your occupation, you must immerse yourself in your work...You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill" was the most memorable line from the movie. At that point, I knew that I wanted to be in the kitchen, whether it be making sushi or cooking in general.
Can you briefly talk about your cooking journey from Bellingham, to Australia, and back to Seattle?
After working at Little Tokyo, I found a job in line with my college degree: physics. I worked as a Radio Frequency Engineer in Bellevue for 2 years until I finally decided to make the jump and learn more about cooking. I worked part-time at a ramen shop, where the consultant referred me to a neighboring restaurant called 99 Park. That was my first "professional" cooking job, where I staged for a few weeks then eventually became a full-time cook. Chef Quinton Stewart really took me under his wing and taught me a lot. [CHEF'S NOTE: I never went to culinary school, but almost did. I took a tour of the International Culinary Center in NYC and was really close to enrolling. I asked Quinton if he thought I should go and he told me otherwise. So everything I know about cooking is from him, reading countless cookbooks, watching YouTube videos, etc.] So when he left 99 Park to work at Scout PNW at the Thompson Hotel in Seattle, I followed. Together, we ran "The Chef's Counter," which was a multi-course tasting menu for up to 8 guests per seating. The learning curve was steep and the standards were high, but that really motivated me to learn and grow. After about a year I decided I should try to learn more about cooking on my own, and found out that Australia offered a working visa that I qualified for. So I went down under and picked up a stage at Automata and worked at Victor Churchill butcher shop. The culture itself and their approach to food was way different and that excited me, but it wasn't home. I did get homesick while I was in Australia and decided to go back to Seattle early and really plant myself there. I worked at Trove briefly, then moved on to work as a roaming sous chef for Hitchcock on Bainbridge Island and at their cafe in Seattle (both of which Quinton was also working at, so we were working together again). After a year we moved on to work at Ben Paris.
The strong Seattle food community is something that has come up in a number of conversations with chefs in the area. You’ve worked with some of the most well known chefs in the area. Can you comment on the mentorship you’ve received? What do you think makes the Seattle food scene so tightly knit and generally affable?
Quinton has been my mentor since day one. He's taught me everything that I know about cooking. I'd say that I got pretty lucky with him, there's always that stereotype that chefs are always on edge and yelling. But he's always been cool, calm, and collected and that's how I try to present myself in the kitchen. The food scene in Seattle is so friendly because we are all striving for the same goal, which is to be hospitable to others and to nourish them with our food and creativity. It's not like we eat at "rival" restaurants and try to take their dishes, but we get inspired and want to become better cooks so we can take better care of our guests.
COVID has been brutal for restaurants and food adjacent businesses. What was the motivation behind launching Baon during this turbulent time?
The location of Ben Paris (where Baon operates at) is in downtown Seattle, and we relied heavily on foot traffic and tech workers. Now that a majority of them are working from home, downtown has become a ghost town and it almost feels unsafe to come down to the area. Even though the dining room is open, the amount of business we get now is barely anything that we would normally have. In an effort to serve guests without risking their health any more than necessary, I started Baon. The name is a Filipino concept and word that describes taking food on the go or on a journey - like taking food home after a celebration. While we can't and shouldn't gather due to to COVID-19, I still want to be able to give guests food to take home and enjoy. This is also an opportunity for me to showcase my Filipino heritage and to share that with others.
Coming out of the pandemic, the restaurant business is forever changed. How do you think restaurants will adjust? Do you have any long term plans for your popup?
The tough thing about this pandemic is no one knows what will happen next. We are all taking it day by day and adjusting as necessary. I think restaurants just have to become more creative in how they market themselves (and their food) and how to reach guests. For example, lots of restaurants are promoting their pop-ups and hoping for someone to take notice. Baon's approach is different in the sense that we are a "speakeasy" type of pop-up. We started off with only our close family and friends knowing about the secret menu. Then they told their friends and family, someone on Instagram saw a picture of the food, etc. So for us, Baon is driven by the community and it wouldn't be as successful as it is without their support. If all goes well, Baon could become more than a pop-up: food truck, collaborative events, brick & mortar, etc.
Beyond trying Baon, how can our audience support some of the causes closest to you and your family?
Support small/local businesses, learn more about different cultures and try to see things from another person's perspective.
Whenever we chat with chefs, we ask them to share a favorite recipe. Something our audience can try for themselves at home. Would you be open to sharing a recipe?
Garlic Fried Rice